Crossing the Hudson River

February 6, 2011 at 4:05 PM Leave a comment

Some deeper questions and observations got lost in the news coverage, public opinion polls and liberal laments over Gov. Christie’s cancellation of the “Access to the Region’s Core” (ARC) rail alternative for building more capacity across the Hudson River.

ARC was a $8.7B rail tunnel and station project devised by NJTransit and funded mostly by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA) and the State.

My first observation is that New Jersey has a planning and political vacuum where the regional transportation network is concerned.  New Jersey has not been part of a formal regional transportation planning entity since 1982, when the metropolitan planning organization (MPO, in federal transportation law parlance), the Tri-State Regional Planning Commission, collapsed.  Of the three MPOs in New Jersey, one focuses only on Northern NJ, one on the Philadelphia area and one on Atlantic City and its surrounds.

An MPO’s role is planning, and dividing up the federal transportation funds pie according to those plans.  There’s actually a federal law that mandates that transportation projects, especially very large, expensive ones, must be planned in advance, studied as to impacts, vetted in all kinds of venues, and then funded with the consent of all concerned.  The process was put in place by Congress largely to avoid what happened to the ARC project.

The demise of ARC—and the manner in which it was terminated—suggest that it’s time to think seriously about re-creating a regional MPO, with New York, where the politics may be sorted out and the projects moved forward.

An MPO’s capital plan shapes the region’s transportation investments and reflects consensus on the funding and schedule for projects—highway, rail, bicycle, etc.—amongst the elected officials from the region, transportation planners and other stakeholders (businesses, consumers and commuters).  Right now, the PA is functioning as a bit of a regional MPO, divvying up funds from the PA’s take of airport fees, and bridge and tunnel tolls, for capital projects in each state.  The PA’s capital projects are supposed to be for airport- and seaport-related transportation and infrstructure.  Not for fixing NJ’s general transportation budget woes.

Transit advocates and transportation planners were left scratching their head over ARC’s outright cancellation, rather than reformation— after all, New Jersey is not a cul de sac. The economy of much of northern New Jersey, and especially the value of real estate, and hence property tax base, depends in part on salaries and bonuses commuters bring home from their New York jobs.  Northern New Jersey is now served by an ancient, decrepit rail tunnel to and from New York carrying two tracks; train capacity is maxed out at peak period.

New Jersey commuters need more rail capacity to Manhattan. There is no dispute about that fact.  The question of when it should be built, where it should be routed and terminate, etc. should now be answered in a regional planning context. Clearly, funding is going to have to be regional as well.

Mayor Bloomberg has a wider perspective, maybe a bigger agenda than Gov. Christie.  He showed it by proposing the # 7 subway line extension almost immediately after ARC’s cancellation.  It’s an intriguing idea, and bears study.  New York City has now set aside a bit of money to look at it.

The Dec. 21, 2010 Quinnipiac College poll shows that while New Jerseyans support the # 7 line extension idea by a wide margin, they aren’t willing to pay for it.  Actually, they were, until they were told it would cost $1B or more.  Then they said no.

The # 7 subway line runs from Queens to Manhattan.  Extension of it to an area west of Penn Station is planned.  Further extension to New Jersey would serve one of the important original goals of the study on how to increase rail capacity across the Hudson River, namely, providing New Jersey commuters with train access from New Jersey to the east side of Manhattan, where there may be more and better paying jobs, than the area around Penn Station, where ARC eventually was forced to terminate.  (Critics derided ARC as the rail tunnel to Macy’s basement, after plans to connect it to both Grand Central Station on the east side, and to Penn Station, were dropped.)  If the # 7 line extension idea gets approval (a process that can take anywhere from 10 years to 100 years), the # 7 subway would link to Secaucus Junction, in the Meadowlands, and save the expense of building a new stand-alone station there or at Penn Station.

The whole cross-Hudson rail capacity issue may now be re-studied, based on new Census, work locations, job growth, commute travel patterns and other data.  What a good time to re-create a regional MPO, which includes both New York and New Jersey!

The next question raised is a fundamentally legal one: how exactly did ARC pass away? How  did one “Jersey guy” governor take just two months to kill a project that he supported during his campaign, which served an acknowledged need, and which was planned since 1995 by all the agencies and elected officials attending New Jersey’s MPO—the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, and funded in large part by both the feds—with New York’s knowledge, and through the Port Authority—with New York’s fiscal participation and approval.

It happened by fiat.  The governor simply canceled the project.  Is cancellation of an approved project in an approved capital program by fiat lawful? The quick answer is that it was a project of  NJTransit, an agency that is within the governor’s Cabinet. The director serves at the governor’s pleasure; the governor appoints its board of directors.  It is not an independent authority.  Gov. Christies was probably told that MPO capital project plans are not enforceable; if everyone agrees, the plans are carried out, but if not, they have no teeth.  So yes, he can cancel his agency’s project.

Capital project spending is innately political, and all politics is local. Only politicians that have the desire to execute plans will do so.  Bad projects should always be able to be killed.  That doesn’t mean the MPO model should be junked, or plans kept toothless.  Like democracy, it’s an imperfect model.

We need a regional planning MPO that has the buy in of the three governors (or at least two) and the Port Authority and any other authorities that are independent or quasi-independent of gubernatorial control.  The resultant approved plans should be strengthened.  A well-planned, multi-modal, efficient transportation system is going to help us compete in the global marketplace.

Whether ARC was part of that well-planned, efficient transportation network is now moot.  The lesson to be learned is that ARC was starting to face cost overruns; NJTransit apparently had not planned how to control them, auditors for the FTA found.  In fact, NJTransit had no project management plan, no financial plan and no master schedule at the time the feds signed off on NJTransit’s spending the first $1.35B in construction.  We should put clear cost controls and appropriate planning measures into the NJ Transportation Trust Fund re-authorization law, which is about to be enacted by the Legislature. In the first instance, New Jersey should not have allowed itself to get into this mess.  The Federal Transit Administration may take it out on us for a long time.  (The feds are suing New Jersey to obtain its $217M back for the canceled ARC project.)

As to the vacuum, is there even a forum that can handle the next alternatives study, and answer the many questions raised by ARC, its prior alternatives and the # 7 line proposal?

Finally, revenue-raising for infrastructure and transportation projects will have to be faced by the NJ Legislature some day.  Right now, and for the last two decades, it’s been a “third rail” the Legislature won’t touch.  In fact, the Democrats are now trying to roll back the toll increases they approved a couple years ago.

The stakes are higher now than ever before.  “Earmarks” traditionally funded a lot of important transportation projects in New Jersey.  We’re also losing other methods New Jersey had of leveling the playing field in terms of money and projects, such as a strong Congressional delegation, seats an on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and so forth.  New Jersey’s taxpayers, because of its affluence, sends much more money to Washington, D.C. than it gets back, in any other area than transportation.  Transportation is our fourth largest industry.  We need a good regional transportation network, in a state of good repair.

Mayors, state representatives, commuters, taxpayers and planners– everybody, really– are going to have to step up to the plate and make their voices heard on transportation issues and projects.

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